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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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April 24, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq Polls

In general, I’m not much of a believer in polls. Most of the time, they measure a “public opinion” that is shaped and formed by the government and elite interests, rather than one that exerts a check on them. The numbers are extraordinarily sensitive to the exact wording of questions and to the answers provided; they also reflect nothing of the knowledge of the people answering the question, the ethical foundations of their answer, or the deliberative process by which they have come to it.

Poll results obviously don’t provide any sort of ethical validation of one’s stance; they don’t necessarily provide political validation either – unless you have some reason to believe that the numbers are based on reasoning similar to yours and that they reflect pressures that will lead people to actually organize with you.

That said, on an issue like the Iraq occupation, it is important to keep an eye on the polls. First, because people have had the time and thought to formulate their positions. Second, because there is considerable divergence between government and other elite institutions, especially parts of the corporate media, and even within the government itself, thus making normal mechanisms of opinion formation much less powerful.

There’s a website called that collects and posts poll results. It is worthwhile to review some of those numbers.

First, a considerable majority thinks that, judged after the fact, the war was a mistake. The Pew Research Center had a poll recently that showed an even split on this question, probably because of different wording, but other polls are showing numbers in the low 40’s saying it was not a mistake and mid- to high 50’s saying it was. This is not as great a majority as many seem to think, but it is significant, although such an utterly disastrous decision really ought to have far more opposed.

Bush’s disapproval rating on Iraq is in the low to mid-60’s. Interestingly, people are beginning to favor the Democrats over the Republicans on ability to handle Iraq, even though one poll shows that only 25% of people think the Democrats have a plan for Iraq.

In a recent CBS News poll, 78% said Iraq is in the middle of a civil war and 18% said it isn’t, an interesting sign that administration propaganda is relatively ineffective regarding the actual situation in Iraq. In the same poll, 63% said Bush is trying to make things in Iraq sound better than they are, compared to 26% saying he’s describing it accurately.

In questions about troop numbers, those advocating more troops are in the high single digits or the low teens; about 25-30% want the number to stay the same; and about 55% want to decrease or eliminate the troop presence (that 55% is about equally divided between the two options).

When the question is asked in a different way, should the troops stay “as long as it takes” or should they come home “as soon as possible,” the country is evenly split, with high 40’s for both answers. A very slight majority, about 50-55%, favors setting a timeline for withdrawal.

A more revealing result: a CNN/Gallup/USAToday poll in March had 39% of people still believing that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. This is better than the numbers of the highly indoctrinated U.S. military, where a Zogby poll in February showed 85% believing that the primary reason for the Iraq invasion was “payback for 9/11,” but it’s still stunning.

The most stunning recent result I’ve seen, though, from the same poll, is that, when asked if Iraq was better off or worse off than before the invasion, 19% answered “much better off,” 48% “somewhat better,” 18% “somewhat worse,” and 12% “much worse.” In other words, 67% said Iraq was better off and 30% worse off.

This is true despite reports that infant mortality and child malnutrition have doubled, despite a sensational rise in violence and in the likelihood of violent death, and despite that fact that by the most basic index of all, gross mortality, Iraq was worse off afterward to the tune of 100,000 deaths in the first 18 months and by now most likely well over 200,000.

Unlike the nonexistence of the Saddam-al-Qaeda link, where it’s hard to imagine adding much to the existing newspaper coverage, this last is an obvious point of application for an antiwar movement that is running out of ideological steam as the occupation becomes more and more complicated.

Posted at 10:32 am

April 10, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Nuclear Chicken and the "Madman" Theory

A few months ago, I predicted that there would be no U.S. military strikes on Iran. While the Bush administration would desperately love to, given the balance of forces it is almost certain to be a strategic disaster. This kind of argument is dangerous when dealing with an administration that is severely insulated from reality, but I made it.

Was I wrong? On April 2, the Daily Telegraph, favored mouthpiece for the British military, ran a story about British meetings and evaluations of U.S. plans to attack Iran; anonymous officials said that a strike on Iran was “inevitable” if it did not comply with demands to freeze uranium enrichment.

And then, in the April 17 issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, tapping his anonymous dissident sources inside the military-intelligence complex, writes that the Bush administration has .

One of Hersh’s sources says that Bush compares Ahmadinejad to Hitler – not exactly a stunningly new development – and believes he is the only politician with the political courage to sacrifice his own popularity (such as it is) in order to save the world from the supposed scourge of Iran with a nuclear weapon.

Hersh says military analyst Sam Gardiner estimates that the United States would need to hit about 400 targets in order to disrupt Iran’s putative nuclear weapons program. Some of those sites are so well-buried that it’s possible they can only be destroyed with tactical nuclear weapons.

All in all, it sounds pretty scary. Hersh has shown time and again his ability to get stories that nobody else does.

And yet, that’s not how I see it. In fact, I feel a profound sense of déjà vu. We had exactly the same scare last year in early spring/late winter, complete with a
Seymour Hersh article and predictions of imminent war by people like Scott Ritter. In fact, we also saw last year, as this year, both the U.S. government and the Iranian government dismissing the claims in Hersh’s article.

The war didn’t happen last year. And all that has changed since then is that Bush has recklessly spent down his political capital, at home and abroad. There is more cooperation with Europe, but Europe doesn’t want military action.

Some would say that this is also an exact repeat of the leadup to the Iraq war, complete with statements that Iran has a chance to resolve this diplomatically, or the U.S. will go to war. The difference, of course, is that the Iraq war was undertaken in an era of expansive military triumphalism, when nearly all informed opinion thought the Vietnam syndrome had been kicked forever; a mere three years later, we live in an era of stark pessimism about the ability of the United States to transform the world by violence.

So I think what we are seeing is what military analyst Fred Kaplan calls a game of “nuclear chicken.” The United States and Iran are locking themselves into a collision course, each saying that it will not back down under any circumstances. The threat of military strikes against Iran shows not the likelihood of military action but the desperation of the United States, which seems to have exhausted all its cards and can only hope to scare the Iranians into negotiating.

The talk about using so-called “nuclear bunker-busters” goes a step further than that, resurrecting Nixon’s old “madman” theory – the quaint idea that if he appeared crazy and violent enough, he could scare the Vietnamese into capitulating. Well, Nixon understood neither the Vietnamese nor the war he was fighting, and his madman theory went into the dustbin of history, only to be occasionally pulled out and dusted off by nuclear hawks (in the Clinton administration as well as this one).

Although, as I outlined before, the United States cannot gain strategically from going to war, if it so happens that it does, make note of this: The war will be justified on the basis of claims that the Iranian rulers are crazy and cannot be trusted to act rationally in their own interests (by refraining from attacking the United States or its allies). At the same time, the war will actually be predicated on a belief that the Iranian government is very sane. Given how amazingly well-placed Iran is to destabilize Iraq even further and to retaliate against soft targets around the world, the United States will be depending on deterring them from retaliation with further threats.

Posted at 10:26 am

April 3, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq: Spreading the "Good News"

Like Diogenes looking for an honest man, the right wing continues its search for “good news” in Iraq. Howard Kaloogian, a Republican running to fill the seat vacated so ignominiously by Randy “Duke” Cunningham, recently threw his good news into the pot: a street-level photograph of Baghdad with a functioning market, a man and a woman walking hand in hand, no hint of violence on the horizon. What it was supposed to prove, I can’t imagine; one could easily have found photographs of functioning markets in Sarajevo, Beirut, or Saigon at the height of their problems. In any case, it turns out that the photograph was not of Baghdad at all but of Istanbul, Turkey, a city not exactly in the grip of civil war. Kaloogian claims it was all a big mixup and quickly replaced the photo with one of Baghdad – taken from a high-up hotel room with a telephoto lens.

It’s rather an odd conceit, that at a time when bound and sometimes beheaded bodies are showing up every day in the streets in large number, the media should really be going on staged photo-ops with Marines who have just finished painting a school. It’s also predicated on two rather odd ideas, that good news for Iraqis is necessarily good news for Americans and that good news for Iraqis somehow redounds to the credit of the U.S. occupation.

Some of the good news for the U.S. is definitely not so good for Iraqis. Ra’ad Hamza of the Iraqi Ministry of Trade tells us Iraqis are finally being weaned off socialism. The monthly food ration was recently sharply cut; it now provides four basic items, as opposed to twelve under Saddam. The price of lentils, formerly included in the ration but now not included, has quadrupled since 2002. A Baghdad University economist says the price of vegetables and grains doubled in January and is steadily increasing. The food ration budget has been cut by 25%, part of the austerity measures being pushed by the U.S., directly and through the IMF. But, reassures Hamza, “we'll continue to provide the population with essential items at least until the end of the current year.”

The price of gasoline, similarly, has already increased by a factor of 6.5 and will have increased by a factor of 10 before it’s done – another legacy of the IMF standby arrangement negotiated last December.

The composition of attacks by non-coalition forces has sharply changed. In September, 82% of attacks were against coalition forces; in February, 65% were. And that number understates the shift, since most death-squad killings are probably not counted while random, nonserious attacks against troops are.

A survey of doctors in Baghdad hospitals yields an estimate that the murder rate in the capital city has tripled after the Samarra mosque bombing, to 33 a day. In the whole country, it’s somewhere from 50 to 100 a day, 20 or 30 thousand per year.

Finally, some bad news for the United States. Four and a half months after the so-inspiring December 15 elections, no government has formed. The Bush administration’s legendary respect for democracy, expressed in Palestine with a cutoff of aid after Hamas won, has been expressed in Iraq by heavy-handed pressure to break the Kurdish-Shiite parliamentary bloc, at least until a suitable member of the Shi’a bloc is nominated for the prime ministership. It has now taken the form of open calls by the United States for Ibrahim Jaafari, selected in a narrow vote by the dominant United Iraqi Alliance but unable to get enough votes in the National Assembly as a whole, to step down so that the supposedly more tractable Adel Abdul Mehdi of SCIRI can be selected.

This blatant partisanship may be the last straw for the Shi’a parties. The shift engineered by Zalmay Khalilzad toward the Sunnis and against the Shi’a went a little too far too fast when U.S. and Iraqi troops raided the Mustafa huseiniyah and killed numerous Sadrists. The constant background mutterings about Khalilzad’s perceived anti-Shi’a prejudice have erupted into denunciations, including a call by Ayatollah Mohammad al-Yacoubi, leader of the Fadila party, which has 15 seats in the National Assembly, for Khalilzad to be recalled and replaced. America’s new strategy seems to be failing almost before it was implemented.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Zarqawi can finally take a well-earned vacation and watch as the results of his handiwork play out.

Posted at 10:27 am
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